How does copyright work?

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How does copyright work?

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The laws are different in every country. In general, if you create a work, you own it and other people can’t reproduce it in most situations for a long time.

Copyright gives the author of a creative work a legal monopoly on that work. For example if I write a book, nobody can go and copy that book and sell it without my permission. And nobody can adapt it into a sequel or movie, or translate it into another language. That gives me the ability profit from my writing by selling that permission: for example I’ll let a publisher release my book, but only if I get a cut of the profits (“royalties”) from each sale. Or I can sell (“assign”) my copyright altogether, taking cash now in exchange for giving up control. If somebody breaks the rules and “infringes” on my copyright, I can sue them to get them to stop, and get the profits they made.

Although this used to be different in the past, today copyright applies to a work as soon as you create it. A mere idea is not restricted, but as soon as you put pen to paper copyright can apply. You don’t need a special notice to claim copyright or file to register it, although these can help enforce your claim. And under the Berne Convention, copyright applies in other countries as well.

There are limitations on copyright which vary by country. The main one is that copyright is temporary, although today copyright terms are very long: in the United States it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. Some works are not copyright-restricted, such as works by the U.S. government. And other people don’t need the rightsholder’s permission to make “fair use” of a copyrighted work, the way a book review might quote portions of the book, or the way a parody necessarily copies some elements from the work it is based on.

The purpose of copyright is to incentivize authors to create new media, by allowing them to profit from their work. But the restrictions also discourage other people from using those works as inspiration for new ones. That’s why copyright law has to carefully strike a balance between giving benefits to the original author and not putting too many restrictions on everyone else.